Gregor Townsend is acutely aware of the scale of the task that faces Scotland against Ireland tomorrow. But, after two victories then an at-times-inspired performance in defeat by France in this year’s Six Nations, he is also cautiously hopeful that the team he has selected will be up to that task.

Scotland have not beaten Ireland in Townsend’s time as head coach, their last win having come in 2017 when Vern Cotter was still at the helm. In the intervening six years, the Irish have gone from strength to strength, and go into the game at BT Murrayfield as the No.1 side in the world.

So it goes without saying that they will be formidable opponents. Five points clear of Scotland, England and France at the top of the Championship table, Andy Farrell’s team could, depending on today’s results, be going into this game knowing a win will give them the title. And even if that is not arithmetically certain, they will still have their sights set on a Grand Slam – something they will achieve if they win tomorrow and follow that up with victory in Dublin over England in next Saturday’s final round of fixtures.

“We know how good a team Ireland are,” Townsend said after naming a team with just two changes from the one that began in the Stade de France two weekends ago. “Last week at the DAM Health showed you how good Irish rugby is: with so many players missing from the Leinster team they still put in an outstanding performance against Edinburgh.

“They are very consistent. They have a level of game, a level of player, who we know are going to test us through their attack, their defence and their contact area in particular, and through their set- piece. So if we don’t get close to our top performance then we’re not going to win.

“But we believe we are building towards that performance. To do it we’ve got to make sure we start well. In the past that [bad starts] has meant we’ve had to play really well after the start. We’re going to have to play really well right from the beginning this time.

“[Ireland] know each other really well; a lot of them play for the same club or in the same country and they have been together now for a few years. They have built success through [former head coach] Joe Schmidt, and Andy Farrell has evolved their game as well, which has led to even more success from them. They know what works for them.

“We’ve been working well in training and the players know there will be opportunities in this game that we didn’t take in Paris. There are improvements we can make in the defensive side as well.

“But it’s also the best Ireland side that we’ve faced. They’ve had three big wins and they’ve named probably their strongest team to face us this weekend. So while we’re improving – or have improved – we still have more improvement in us.”

For Scotland, victory would bring a reward in the shape of the Triple Crown, something they have not lifted since their own last Grand Slam year of 1990. More tangibly, however, it would represent significant progress for a team who have already won their opening two fixtures in the tournament for the first time this century.

Townsend has seen his side play at a more consistently high level over the past few months. He said before the Championship started that he wanted the team to take up where they had left off in the autumn against Argentina, by producing some excellent attacking rugby, and that is what they have done.

Consistency of selection is probably a contributory factor in that sustained improvement, and for this game, too, the head coach has opted to keep a settled side. Of the two changes he has made, one is forced on him by the suspension of Grant Gilchrist. Jonny Gray comes in for the Edinburgh man and will partner his older brother Richie in the second row.

The other alteration sees Jack Dempsey start at No.8 in a reshuffled back row, with Matt Fagerson shifting to blindside and captain Jamie Ritchie moving to openside. Hamish Watson drops to the bench in what may also, at least in part, be a consequence of Gilchrist’s ban. Sacrificed after just six minutes following his Edinburgh team-mate’s sending-off because the team needed two locks on the field, Watson got no chance to put in the level of performance that might have persuaded Townsend to keep him in the team for this one.

On the bench, Scott Cummings returns to fill the space left by Gray’s elevation and Simon Berghan is preferred to WP Nel as back-up at tighthead for Zander Fagerson.

There is a five-three split this week compared to the six-two that was chosen against France, so Sam Skinner is the forward to miss out, while centre Chris Harris is restored to the 23 as the third backs replacement.

But while much of the interest in a team’s unveiling focuses on the changes, a lot of the attention this time has focused on a man who has been something approaching a constant since making his debut 11 years ago: Stuart Hogg, who at the age of just 30 will become the fourth Scottish male player to win 100 caps for his country, following in the footsteps of Ross Ford, Chris Paterson and Sean Lamont. All but one of those appearances have been starts.

“It is an incredible achievement and very well deserved,” Townsend said of the full-back. “He has been one of our best players of the last 10 years and also in the history of Scottish rugby. We put a tribute video together the other day when we announced the team, and some of the tries he scored, some of the victories he has been involved in, have been fantastic.

“Also the nature of his game as well, the creative nature of his game. He has created a lot of tries for other people. His durability, his love of the jersey and of playing the game, has been constant throughout that period. It is a great game to win your 100th cap at home with a trophy at stake.”

There will be another trophy at stake next week for Scotland if they beat Ireland tomorrow – the Six Nations trophy, which they would have a chance of winning for the first time if they defeat Italy a week today. But no-one in the squad is thinking about that just now. Not with the battle of their lives to come first.